Iceland is allowing tourists to skip testing if they’ve already had the coronavirus, but experts say it’s a questionable idea

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  • Iceland was one of the first countries to reopen its borders to visitors last June and tested all travelers for COVID-19.
  • After a second wave in the summer, it tightened restrictions on incoming travelers, asking them to either quarantine for 14 days, or take a test on arrival, quarantine for five days, and then take a second test.
  • But from December 10, Iceland will allow travelers that can prove that they have recovered from the coronavirus to skip both testing and quarantine.
  • While experts agree that reinfection is rare and that patients generally do develop some sort of immunity, we don't know enough yet about how long immunity can last.
  • It's worth noting that while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention no longer advises against nonessential travel, it does warn that "travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19."
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

After pretty successfully containing the first wave of the coronavirus last spring, Iceland was one of the first countries to reopen its borders to visitors last summer, allowing travelers back in from mid-June.

The country tested all arrivals for COVID-19, allowing travelers who tested negative to bypass quarantine. Those who tested positive had to self-isolate for 14 days.

However, after experiencing a second wave in the summer, Iceland tightened its restrictions on incoming travelers in August.

Currently, travelers arriving in Iceland get to choose between simply quarantining for 14 days, or taking a test upon arrival, quarantining for five days, and then taking another test.

But starting December 10, anyone arriving from the European Economic Area (EEA) that can present documents proving that they have already had and recovered from the coronavirus can skip both testing upon arrival and any sort of quarantine, Iceland Review reports.

"Healthcare authorities have stated that people who have already contracted the virus and recovered are not at risk of spreading it further," Iceland Review writes.

However, experts don't all agree that recovery from the coronavirus will protect a person from getting it again or spreading it.

While experts agree that reinfection is rare and that most COVID-19 patients develop some sort of immunity, we don't yet know enough about how long immunity may last

Scientists need more time to study the virus and its reinfection rates.
marchello74 / Shutterstock

"Without conclusive data on reinfection risk, Iceland should not bank on previous infection providing immunity,"  Dr. Danielle C. Ompad, associate dean for education at the NYU School of Global Public Health, told Insider.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "at this time researchers do not know if the presence of antibodies means that you are immune to the coronavirus in the future."

Business Insider's Aylin Woodward reports that a new study suggests that a combination of antibodies and white blood cells known as T cells and B cells developed after recovering from the coronavirus could lead to at least eight months of immunity in a majority of COVID-19 cases, as well as protect most people against coronavirus reinfection for years. 

"Reinfection is exceedingly rare and likely is not a concern for the first several months post-infection," Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar with a focus on emerging infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, told Insider, likening COVID-19 to other infectious diseases in this respect.

However, he acknowledged that there hasn't been enough time to really study patients who have recovered.

Dr. William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, agrees. 

"We really don't know definitively for how long immunity, that is protection from reinfection, will last after you recover from the virus," he told Insider.

He added that even the tests created to determine immunity are new and may not be entirely accurate.

"We don't know which test results actually correlate clearly with protection. Yet. We can measure certain immune phenomenon, but whether they relate to protection directly is not yet known," he said.

However, Dr. Schaffner acknowledged that, with the growing body of information surrounding immunity, Iceland's approach is relatively low-risk.

"What we're all in the business of is reducing the risk and doing it in a way that's practical so we can make it work," he said, adding that no solution is perfect.

"Iceland decided, looking at this information as it comes in, and there's new information almost daily, that, 'okay, we can accept that previous documentation of infection has very, very low risk of introducing the virus into Iceland,'" he said.

That said, not everyone in the study cited by Woodward gained immunity: Some patients could still be susceptible to reinfection relatively quickly.

Woodward writes that "until scientists have more time to study the virus, there won't be a way to predict how long a given person's coronavirus immunity will last after they're infected."

Furthermore, she writes that this research has not yet been peer-reviewed, and previously reported on reinfections in Hong Kong, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

"You can get it again," Florian Krammer, a vaccine scientist and virus expert at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, told Business Insider in July.

Iceland is currently experiencing a third wave of the coronavirus

Iceland has been open to visitors from the European Union and Schengen states since June.
Ernir Eyjolfsson/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

While numbers are on the decline, Iceland is currently fighting a third wave of the coronavirus, Iceland Review reports.

Iceland has been open to visitors from the European Union and Schengen states since June. Travelers must fill in a pre-registration form and are encouraged to download the local COVID-19 tracking app, according to Iceland's Directorate of Health.

In order to lure more travelers over the holidays, COVID-19 testing will be free from December 1 to January 31, per the Directorate of Health.

Iceland's population of about 350,734 has seen 5,392 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 26 related deaths at the time of writing, according to Johns Hopkins' coronavirus resource center.

Currently, bars and clubs are closed, restaurants must shut down by 9 p.m., and people are expected to social distance and wear masks in public, according to Iceland's Tourist Board.

Despite not being a European Union member state, Iceland also does not allow US citizens to enter the country, according to the U.S. Embassy in Iceland. 

It's worth noting that while the CDC no longer advises against nonessential travel, it does warn that "travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19."

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